Dents in the soul – living with PTSD

Two years ago, my untreated PTSD cost me my marriage, and almost my life. Why? Because I didn’t think it was as bad as it was, and I was too ashamed to ask for help, which when you think about life in the military is a completely bullshit excuse.

Military units are the sum total of ALL its moving parts. When one part isn’t working, the unit starts to break down. In uniform, when we saw a mate struggling through the obstacle course, or out in the field, we helped them. But out here on ‘civi’ street where we  often don’t have our mates within arms reach, we try and deal with our shit alone.

The fact that so many of our fellow veterans are harming themselves, and even worse – taking their own lives – is testament to the fact that trying to fight this alone doesn’t work. Whether you’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, or just know in your soul that something just ain’t right, the only way you get better is to understand what PTSD is, and isn’t, and then begin reach out to mates or professionals to get it under control.

Here’s a primer on PTSD, gratefully supplied by the DVA.

PTSD – The Basics

Traumatic events such as those involving actual or threatened death or serious injury, or witnessing human deprivation (eg. regions ravaged by famine or war), can have a strong impact on your mental health and wellbeing. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is one of a range of mental disorders that individuals can experience after traumatic events. PTSD can be distressing with negative consequences for your health and wellbeing. It can affect anyone, but there is help available.

Army, in conjunction with Joint Health Command and singer songwriter John Schumann, have produced a 30-minute documentary designed to address stigma, offer support and raise awareness of the issues surrounding PTSD for Army personnel and their families. Featuring Army members who share their own experiences with PTSD, the movie supports the important message of look after yourself, your mates and your family.

This documentary aims to de-stigmatise PTSD and to show that it can potentially happen to anyone who has been exposed to a traumatic event. Developing symptoms of post traumatic stress after exposure to trauma is not a sign of weakness it is simply being human.

Recovery rates from PTSD are high but early diagnosis and treatment are particularly important. Generally, the longer the symptoms persist, and go untreated, the longer the eventual recovery will take and the greater the disruption to the person’s work, family and enjoyment of life.

Singer Songwriter John Schumann, who wrote I Was Only 19, is the narrator of the documentary and helps walk viewers through diagnosis, treatment and effects of PTSD on individuals and their families. John Schumann also shares his personal experience with PTSD in the film.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is a traumatic event?
What is traumatic for one person may not be so for another. However, it is generally accepted that certain events, like threat of death, serious injury, seeing dead bodies, death or serious injury of a close friend/colleague/family member or witnessing wide spread human degradation, have the potential to cause significant distress.

What are the main symptoms of traumatic stress?
Most people will normally experience strong reactions after traumatic events. Commonly, these include re-living the event, having intrusive thoughts about the event, avoiding anything that reminds them of the event, feeling sad and tearful, feeling highly anxious or panicky, sleep disturbances, being easily startled, extreme irritability, difficulties concentrating or remembering, excessive use of alcohol or drugs, and relationship problems.

If I am experiencing symptoms of traumatic stress, when should I seek help?
The initial symptoms of traumatic stress would be expected to subside after 2 to 4 weeks since the traumatic event. If the symptoms persist longer than this, you should seek professional help to manage the symptoms and to reduce their impact upon your ability to function.

If I have symptoms of traumatic stress, will I automatically get PTSD?
No. There is a continuum of how people react to PTEs or CIs, from mild disturbance to quite severe impact. Generally, the more severe the reaction, the more likely a person is to develop PTSD – however, if the symptoms diminish within a few weeks, it is less likely that the person will go on to develop PTSD.

What is PTSD?
PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a serious mental illness that can occur after exposure to a traumatic event. It is characterised by repeated and disturbing images or memories of the event, avoiding places or situations that remind people of the event and significant hyper-arousal including exaggerated startle responses and sleep problems.

If I have PTSD, does this mean I’m going crazy?
PTSD is a serious mental illness that will significantly impact upon a person’s quality of life. It does not mean you are going to change to an entirely different person, or not be able to lead a quality life.

I have watched the DVD, now what?
The booklet and website accompanying the PTSD DVD includes guidelines for accessing support for issues or questions raised by viewing the DVD. The booklet suggests that questions are written down and then discussed with local mental health professionals or providers. These are described in the booklet as Nurses, Chaplains, Psychologists, Social Workers, Psychiatrists or Medical Officers. The possibility of discussing the DVD and questions that arise with mates or the Chain of Command is also suggested.

The booklet and website includes contact details for additional resources including the Army Wounded Digger website, DCO, VVCS, DVA, Defence Families Australia, Mental Health, JHC, the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health and the All Hours Support Line.

Additional Resources and Contacts

All Hours Support Line (ASL)
– 1800 628 036
– http://www.defence.gov.au/Health/DMH/AllHoursSupportLine.asp

Defence Family Helpline (Defence Community Organisation)
– 1800 624 608
– http://www.defence.gov.au/DCO/Defence-Helpline.asp

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS)
– 1800 011 046
– http://www.vvcs.gov.au/

Mental Health
– http://www.defence.gov.au/Health/HealthPortal/MentalHealthOnline.asp

Joint Health Command
– www.defence.gov.au/health/

Wounded Digger
– http://www.army.gov.au/Army-life/Wounded-Injured-and-Ill-Digger

Defence Families of Australia
– www.dfa.org.au

Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA)
– 13 32 54
– www.dva.gov.au

Australian Centre for Post Traumatic Mental Health (ACPMH)
– http://www.acpmh.unimelb.edu.au/

The text message that saved me from suicide inspired my business

As a start-up founder, PTSD Awareness Week almost killed me… The irony of this isn’t lost on me for a moment. As a veteran with Complex PTSD, maybe putting my foot into the start-up ring before I had all my mental ducks in a row wasn’t such a good idea.

But, I jumped in anyway, because the army taught me that courage is acting despite fear, and relentlessly pressing forward is how we win.

Yet, in the very week the media beseeched us to spare a moment’s thought for those 2M Australian’s dealing with PTSD – the very same week I discover my 66wk old start-up has received Defence funding and received an invitation to meet with the Minister for Veteran Affairs – I’m completely unable to leave my bed. I spent three days wrapped in blankets, working hard to deny the voices that reify my Imposter Syndrome, telling me I’m not qualified. I can’t do this. I’m a failure / fool / traitor / etc.

I just wanted to find some peace

I launched Soldier.ly after my suicide attempt in 2016 was interrupted by an SMS, and we’ve since created world-first, international award-winning tech that lets people detect and manage stress on a Fitbit smartwatch. This year, I’ve been flown to Switzerland to accept a global innovation award and recently returned from the U.S. after meeting with people who will turn our little company into a global catalyst. While all this sounds incredibly exciting, the point is despite all the bright lights and attention, all I wanted to do was pull away from the world and find some peace.

But, I’m a veteran, and this kind of thinking isn’t new to far too many of my veteran mates. Our rate of mental health issues spans depression, anxiety and chronic stress from our service to this country that’s twice the national average. But after 16 months in this space, and after speaking with other founders who’ve burnt out, literally collapsed in the streets from exhaustion, and destroyed intimate / personal relationships out of their commitment to ‘the win’, I’m glad to find I’m not alone.

I’m not here to whinge. Quite the opposite. I’m simply openly saying what too many of us fear to say, start-up life is a fucking hard slog, and things need to change.

Entrepreneurs, according to a study by Michael Freeman, are 50% more likely to report having a mental health condition, with some specific conditions being incredibly prevalent amongst founders. Founders are:

6X more likely to suffer from ADHD

3X more likely to suffer from substance abuse

10X more likely to suffer from bi-polar disorder

2X more likely to have psychiatric hospitalisation

2X more likely to have suicidal thoughts

The first thing that falls away is the time I spent looking after myself

It’s no surprise why. I spend so much time worrying about finding, hiring and firing the people we need, making sure we can keep the doors open, filtering good advice from bad, choosing to pivot (or not), balancing work, life, money, time etc. that the first thing that falls away is the essential time I used to take to look after myself.

Our economy, our society, desperately needs entrepreneurs. Our self-selected, self-flagellating gig is to create jobs, new markets, products and services, and hopefully, make enough money to live…let along thrive and survive. To be honest, I have zero desire to be the next Elon Musk or Mark (the robot) Zuckerberg. But I’m 100% committed to solving the problem I’ve invested my life savings and reputation on.

I’m not going to end veteran suicide; I accept that. The Senator from Townsville’s recent impassioned speech about the burden on our community and the families who are left to grieve – after those we love or served with did the unforgivable and gave up – is what gets me out of bed 99% of the time.

I accept during my dark moments that I have to be alive to play a role in being part of the change that’s needed so we bury less mates. So, whilst it’s difficult to admit that I have a mental health issue, I have to go on record as I’ve discovered I’m not alone.

Ridiculous transparency and admitting when we struggle, fuck up or miss a turn is a crucial part of Soldier.ly’s company culture. So yes, I often contemplate a world where I don’t have to get out of bed, far more than I’d like to admit. But then I remember why I started, and I turn and face the wonderful people around me who’ve been such a significant part of our journey. I do what the women I lost getting to where I am today reminded me almost daily to do: breathe, and be vulnerable.

You must have courage to ask for help

Vulnerability means admitting we can’t do this alone. It also means having the courage to ask for help. Both of which are deeply foreign to me, though I’m slowly learning to step outside my comfort zone.

Darren Chester, Minister for Veteran Affairs Darren Chester is deeply invested in supporting our veterans, and the Department of Veteran Affairs are working hard to serve the veterans who reach out to them for support, but even in my community, far too few of us ask for help, for a range of reasons spanning confusion, social stigma, and lack of time. That’s why it’s essential start-ups like mine, RedSix and Swiss 8 do the grunt work that desperately needs to be done at our level to create change.

I’d argue that the start-up community needs to do the same thing we’ve started doing in the veteran community. Start-up founders need to support their peers. Likewise, we need to have the courage to admit we’re not OK.

Famed TED talk social researcher and vulnerability guru Brene Brown said specifically about my community that when pondering life after service, the problem for men and women who’ve served ‘on purpose’ is that when transitioning to life as a civilian ‘just living isn’t enough’.

I’d argue that’s equally true for founders. We don’t choose this life because it’s an easy path. There’s a measure of hope, belief and sweat required to stay on mission. It’s that certainty of purpose that got us started, but as I’ve recently learned, it’s the support of our cohort that keeps that fire alive.

As a veteran & founder, I find I’m getting better at surviving this epic journey the more frequently I have the courage to admit I don’t have all the answers. Today, when I find myself struggling at this vertiginous life, I actively seek support.

That doesn’t mean that I always find it, but it’s certainly helping me stay out of bed on the days I’d rather emulate a Groundhog and avoid daylight, and that’s a start…

Will a royal commission into veteran suicide address the larger issue?

Republished article from Defence Connect

Australia’s service personnel answer the call to protect the nation and its interests – with single-minded dedication and commitment to keeping Australia secure. However, when they return from far-flung combat zones or from responding to humanitarian disasters, they face another battle, one the nation needs to do more on to support them through, writes Chris Rhyss Edwards of Soldier.ly.

As a veteran, I want to go on record to say I support the aims and intent of a royal commission into veteran suicides. But, I’m saddened that it could cost $100 million, take five years, and drag families who’ve suffered the loss of sons and daughters through even more hours of unnecessary pain – most likely without any thought to the emotional wringer this will put them through – for what we ‘hope’ is a set of findings that will effect real change… though likely not. It’s going to get ugly.

In recent years, the public’s become more aware of the suicide rate in Australia, likely because of increasing news coverage of veterans who’ve safely made it home from war zones, only to take their own lives for all manner of complex reasons I hope the commission comes to understand. The statistics are sobering.

We’ve lost more soldiers to suicide than fighting in Afghanistan, and – on average – we suffer another veteran death by suicide every four days. That’s why I am grateful the public outrage is finally catching up to the redacted outrage in our community. But, if this royal commission solely focuses on veterans’ lives lost by suicide, or almost lost (like me) through suicide attempts, then we’re missing the larger point.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians 15 to 44 years of age. Yes, one segment of the veteran community sits at twice the national average when it comes to death by suicide, but our deaths make up only a fraction of the circa 3,000 suicides in this country each year.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of undertaking an official inquiry to understand why we lose around 80-100 veterans each year. That’s why I support the intent of Julie-Ann Finney’s petition as it’s attracted much-needed attention and support for change in our community that’s been too long coming.

The royal commission’s findings can’t come soon enough, because by the time they hand down their findings in five to seven years, roughly 600+ veterans will have died by suicide, and another 6,500+ will have planned to, or tried to, die by their own hand.

If the royal commission must go ahead, then why doesn’t the government serve the entire nation – rather than the 2 per cent of us who’ve served the nation in uniform – and increase the scope to focus on our national suicide crisis? Likewise, why not include all first-responders and workers in industries that are exposed to trauma and stressful environments? Absolutely, we need to answer the one question the government seems to have been reluctant to ask: how many veterans die by suicide each year? But we also need to know why so many ‘regular’ civilian teenagers and adults die by their own hand every year in the lucky country.

Knowing these number puts everyone on notice.

In the veteran community, it’s my hope that the royal commission also clearly reveals that the government’s current model for supporting veterans needs a dramatic overhaul. It’s likely (if they dig deep enough) that they will discover that the government – however well-intentioned, and for all the good it’s doing for a good percentage of the veterans and their families that are engaging with it – is inadvertently playing a role in some of these deaths.

I don’t make this claim lightly.

In the US, data reveals that veterans engaging with Veterans Affairs for mental health reasons are twice as likely to die by suicide. Some of these men and women in the US literally died of frustration, dealing with an oftentimes protracted support process. Others tried and simply couldn’t get the support they needed. The ABC revealed in March that veteran crisis help calls went unanswered due to DVA being short on counsellors to meet the demand, so it’s not a huge leap to consider that some of our veterans died because our current system failed them.

The commission should equally dig as deep into the data for the national population. Knowing the answer to these ugly questions will provide essential data points that must define the foundation and scope of a royal commission’s impending actions. Because when we know how many men and women died by suicide, what contributing factors led to their untimely deaths, and what support they needed, wanted, sought, and found – or didn’t find – only then we can start looking to shape policies and programs to deploy at the right time and place to do the most good.

One potential quick win in the royal commission’s undertakings would be to engage the general population, sooner rather than later. Invite those families directly affected by suicide, attempted suicide, or suicidal ideation to participate in a vox populi process via a national hotline that empowers them to share rare insight that would reveal vital information that could well lead to shaping solutions, programs and policy that would save lives.

Allowing a wider audience to engage with this investigative process to contribute their grassroots insight into their loss could shape the royal commission’s national research agenda. Having said that, my final question is, do we really need a royal commission to accomplish the above?

From a financial standpoint, a royal commission is an expensive process. From a human standpoint, we don’t yet seem to be asking whether it’s the right thing to do to retraumatise these families who’ve been through so much already, even if they are the people asking for it?

There has to be a better way.

Speaking as a veteran, I’m a little ashamed we are viewing the suicide of a veteran as more important than the suicide of a civilian. We volunteered to serve this country, to defend and protect all that it holds most dear, most significant of which is its populace. If we must have a royal commission, then my suggestion is we hold one that focuses on the national interest. That’s what my brothers-in-arms fought and died for – some overseas, some here at home.

By all means, dig into why our Diggers are taking their lives, but please also take steps to protect the populace of the country we once volunteered to protect.

Chris Rhyss Edwards is the founder and CEO of Soldier.ly and a proud veteran who recently spoke with Defence Connect about the importance of supporting veterans, and the role technology can play in preventing veteran suicide.

PODCAST: Utilising technology to save the lives of military veterans – Soldier.ly

Podcast republished from Defence Connect

Veteran Chris Rhyss Edwards came within moments of taking his own life. In this episode of the Defence Connect Podcast, he recounts how it was an SMS at exactly the right time which changed that decision and is the reason that he is alive today.

Joining host Phil Tarrant, Edwards shares how this occurrence shaped his decision to explore how technology could be used to avoid veteran suicides, unpack the technology that he is developing and share how Soldier.ly is future-proofing its business plan to utilise new and upcoming technology.

Edwards also reveals his advice for those looking to start a business in the defence sector, who he is hoping to recruit as part of his team, and the biggest challenges facing Soldier.ly today.

 Listen here…

Veterans shouldn’t be sleeping on our streets…

At present, there are 110,000+ Australians currently roofless, homeless or living in insecure housing – which is tragic in and of itself – but as a veteran I’m heartbroken knowing that in NSW 8-10% of these are veterans.

1.6% of Australians volunteer to wear a uniform and serve this country, yet after they leave the service they are twice as likely to die by suicide, three times as likely to be unemployed or underemployed, and up to five times as likely to end up on the streets.

We clearly need to do more.

Which is why I’m doing my small part to make a difference by taking part in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout to raise money for the St Vincent de Paul Society to support all Australians in need. For one night, I’ll be sleeping outside to raise awareness for all of Australia’s homeless men, women and children – but I’m putting the spotlight on veterans specifically.

I’m fortunate to be one of the majority of veterans who are gainfully employed, and as such, able to put food on the table and keep a roof over my head. Now, I clearly don’t know what it’s like to be homeless, vulnerable and nigh on invisible, but recently a young veteran was sent to us for mentorship and his story involved recently living on the streets.

He offered to share his experience, this is what he had to say.

I asked him what his greatest struggle was…

“I’ve found the hardest struggle is no stability, from not having my own place and not having a purpose since leaving the army,” he said. “But I’m determined to tough it out and I think things will get better when I have a job, a roof and independence again.”

I asked him about what he wants to do next…

“I just need to save enough to get my own place and a car so I can attend my appointments and start my training to work in the fitness sector. I want to one day work within addiction and rehabilitation, that’s why I figured I’d start with PT.”

And then I asked him what the underlying problem was…

“I struggled when I first got out to find what I wanted to do next whilst looking for a job where I feel important and challenged.”

His story is no doubt common among the veterans who are lost in our streets and parks, so to help break the cycle of homelessness, I need your support. Will you help me to change this statistic for good?

In the US, a program called Built for Zero is ending veteran homelessness in a number of cities. With 5,000+ ESO’s operating around Australia, there are plenty of people waiting to help veterans and their families before their situation gets this dire – or with capability to support them if it does.

Our community needs to be linking in with local shelters and support services to ensure they are aware of the free help available to our vets. Sadly, organisations are under-resourced and often don’t have the capacity to be talking to each other, you could be the missing link.

Money isn’t always the answer. You can choose to link a local homeless shelter with a local veteran ESO. Or you can also donate to my CEO Sleepout campaign by following this link:

https://www.ceosleepout.org.au/fundraisers/chrisedwards/sydney

Afghanistan: ‘Can we handle 16 more deaths?’

In late June, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel made the claim that “a half of al Qaeda has been eliminated in this last 18 months.” More recently CIA Director Leon Panetta appears to have validated this statement when he told ABC News that al Qaeda maintains only a small footprint in Afghanistan. He said that “at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less” al Qaeda left in the country.

But whereas at first glance this sounds like desperately needed good news for Australians still coping with last months deaths of three Australian commandos and two Engineers, a closer look at the facts shows that it may be way too soon to be getting our collective hopes up that our troops will be returning home safely anytime soon.

Back in 2004 President George W. Bush told radio host Rush Limbaugh that three-quarters of known al Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed in the war. And more recently outlets such as MSNBC suggested that the war must certainly be coming to a close following the death of Al Qaeda’s #3 man, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid.

Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, better known as Sheikh Said al-Masri (aka Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law) was the financial director for Al Qaeda, so his death was hailed by some media outlets and ‘official sources’ as a big victory in terms of counterterrorism.

But even this apparent loss of leadership and a reputedly diluted al Qaeda headcount on the ground appears to have done little to impede their ability to kill our countrymen at their convenience.

So whilst I’m a proud ex-serviceman who to date has been 100% supportive of Australian soldiers doing their part to, as Senator Faulkner stated “improve conditions in that country”, I have recently started questioning the governments claims that our men on the ground are vital for international stability and for the security of Australia.

The tally of Australian troop deaths has hit 16 in our close to decade long campaign on the ground in this troubled part of the world, but I wonder why we are keeping our boys there when all the data suggests we shouldn’t be and when public support for this campaign is at an all time low. Consider two key recent developments…

General Stanley McChrystal recently resigned as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, citing that he no longer had faith in President Obama and the U.S. governments’ plans for the region. Then we have CNN host Fareed Zararia recently publicly criticized the war in explicit detail, asking “if Al Qaeda is down to a hundred men there at the most, why are we fighting a major war?”

Zararia also questioned the costs of the war in both human and financial terms, noting the 100+ deaths of NATO soldiers in the past month and the fact the war is estimated to cost the US more than $100 billion this year alone. So if the military leader in charge of the war doesn’t want to be there, and the mainstream media is starting to refuse to tow the party line, what chance is there that we’ll see local support soon for an end to this debacle?

This weeks government announcement that we could start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan within two years, at least a year earlier than previously forecast, may well be the olive branch we’ve been waiting for.

Whilst Senator Faulkner was quick to clarify that this announcement was not a reversal on the governments’ commitment to stay the course, saying that the timetable depended on “the conditions on the ground”, it is a welcome glimmer of hope that may reflect the long awaited change of heart by the people who govern this nation.

National opposition to our involvement in the protracted conflict has increased, fuelled more recently by our tragic troop loses, so the notion of a quicker withdrawal will be welcomed by many Australians. So to the 1,550 Australian soldiers and other personnel deployed in Afghanistan I offer you my heartfelt wishes that you stay safe from harm long enough for our government to do the right thing by you all.

In closing, I feel the need to repeat Senator Faulkner’s sound bite from earlier in the week, for I believe it reflects our national sentiment and it can never be said enough.

He said “our men and women in uniform continue to do outstanding work in this demanding and dangerous environment. They deserve our very highest praise. They deserve our gratitude.”

Well on behalf of those whose country you serve I’m happy to say: You have it!